Wednesday 17 July 2019

Colm Keys: 'Cunningham on the brink of coaching history with innovation and versatility'

Talking Point

Anthony Cunningham. Photo: Sportsfile
Anthony Cunningham. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Kieran Donaghy's presence with the Galway hurling squad has become an increasingly familiar sight, most recently in Nowlan Park last weekend, in his role as a performance coach.

A Kerry footballer helping the Tribesmen to plot the downfall of Kilkenny in a Leinster Championship match all sounds a bit skewed but Donaghy's portfolio is not the nuances or technique of the game itself, but the mind and attitude of those playing it.

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At the same time, Dessie Farrell has been fulfilling a similar role with the Dublin hurlers, another decorated footballer in unfamiliar territory.

It was where current Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney found himself in 2014 when he conducted a number of one-to-one meetings with Seamus Callanan that the Tipperary forward would subsequently credit for a surge in his form that carried into 2016, when they reclaimed the All-Ireland title. Again, performance of the player, not the team, was McGeeney's outlook, as prescribed by then manager Eamon O'Shea.

Cross-pollination of the codes should not be such a big leap at that level. In fact, it's quite common. But step it up to management itself and it becomes a different proposition. The responsibility and the technical acumen required is so much greater.

It is against that background that Anthony Cunningham will take Roscommon to Salthill to face reigning Connacht champions Galway on Sunday for the first of the four provincial football finals.

Cunningham already has a provincial hurling title to his credit as Galway manager in 2012, his first year in charge of his native county. Now he's within 70 minutes of achieving something unprecedented, certainly in the modern era, by adding a provincial football title.

Cunningham may have been ousted by the Galway players in 2015, after four years in charge, but he has already underlined his versatility as a manager and coach in both codes over the last decade-and-a-half. In September 2011, he was an All-Ireland-winning U21 hurling manager with Galway and just three months later was a Leinster club-winning manager with Westmeath's Garrycastle who would subsequently lose an All-Ireland final to Crossmaglen Rangers after a replay.

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That wasn't even his first provincial club success, having guided a different club in a different province when St Brigid's were Connacht champions in 2006.

At management level, Cunningham is taking the dual mandate further than anyone else with his progression of Roscommon to a fourth successive Connacht final, courtesy of wins over Leitrim and Mayo. The register, as we know it, of those that managed senior inter-county teams in both codes is small. Success is even more sparse.

'Babs' Keating, Seán Boylan and Liam Griffin all managed their county's football or hurling team for a short spell before crossing codes and guiding those same counties to All-Ireland titles in the late 1980s and 1990s. Dublin's Pat Gilroy did it in reverse, winning the 2011 All-Ireland title before putting his hand up for the hurling job last year.

Another Wexford man, Tony Dempsey, has the distinction of managing his county's minor, U-21, junior and senior teams in both codes. At one stage, albeit briefly in the 1980s when there was a hurling vacancy, he managed the senior hurlers and footballers at the same time. The key to it then, as now, was good delegation.

Mick Dempsey is not Kilkenny manager but has been a loyal assistant to Brian Cody for the last 15 years. As Laois U21 football manager before that, they won the 1994 Leinster title. Nicky Brennan managed the Kilkenny footballers for two years after a two-year spell as hurling manager in the 1990s.

The principles of management don't deviate much, even away from the sports field - preparing well, laying out a plan and getting players in the right frame of mind to execute it. It sounds easier than it is, of course.

Still, the wonder is that so few have crossed the divide between hurling and football when the games share more than they would ever like to acknowledge. The skills differ but possession and movement of the ball are fundamentally similar. Can the message from an inter-county hurling manager be that different to a football counterpart?

Roscommon's success over Mayo, their first championship win in Castlebar for 33 years, further franked Cunningham's aptitude for management, bringing the same element of surprise that Galway carried into Croke Park for that Leinster final in 2012, his first year in charge.

He's brought pragmatism, a hard edge and awareness to wherever he has gone. Roscommon wanted to make themselves harder to beat after last year's 'Super 8s' and, so far, he has managed to meet that demand. His management path is already unique but the gradient rises on Sunday.

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